Author & Editor Teams: Editing a Horror Novel with Holly West
Ever been curious about editor/author relationships? In honor of our newly announced acceptance of All YA, we’ll be featuring different editor/author teams in different genres each week. First up, Horror! Editor Holly West teamed up with Chandler Baker, author of Teen Frankenstein and Teen Hyde, to answer some burning questions about perfecting scary stories and things that one should perhaps NOT do when visiting a haunted city. And if you missed Holly's questions for Chandler yesterday, catch up here.
Don’t you just love chilling tales of murder, monsters and things that go bump in the night? WE SURE DO! BOO!
Chandler Baker (CB): Proof that I have the best editor ever: when my daughter was born, you knitted her a Cthulhu, which is an H.P. Lovecraft-invented monster that has green, squiggly tentacles for a beard (and which she now holds while we read books each night). This begs the question, what is your favorite classic horror monster?
Holly West (HW): I’m pretty fond of demons… They tend to be snarky and smart, which are qualities that I always appreciate and they usually have cool magic powers and stuff, so… bonus. Also, there are generally fairly solid rules for dealing with demons, but they almost always cheat. Which keeps things interesting.
CB: What is the most rewarding part of editing horror?
HW: For me, it’s probably the chance to work on something a bit different and unique. I don’t do a lot of horror novels in general, most of my books are more on the funny/action/fantasy/romance spectrum. So a good horror novel is an interesting change of pace. They tend to be a little darker (although elements of humor are GREAT and often necessary to lighten things a bit) and I find I’m much more okay with ambiguous endings in a horror novel, than in other fiction. And sometimes that can be interesting, to leave a few threads hanging so that while things seem mostly under control, there’s always that slight unease that the horror might return, and that things will never quite be the same….
CB: What is the most challenging part of editing horror?
HW: I’m not a huge fan of blood and gore and gross-out moments, and yet those are often useful tools in writing horror… Also, everyone has their own personal triggers, things that skeeve them out a bit more, or things that they automatically recoil from. But sometimes, that sense of recoil and “Oh, ewwww, no!” is EXACTLY what the story needs. As an editor, it can sometimes be hard to balance the “I personally hate this” with the “but it works for the story!”... and I find that moments like that happen most often when I’m working on horror-related titles.
CB: What advice do you have for writers interested in writing horror?
HW: Read Stephen King’s nonfiction essays. He has some amazing essays about writing horror and feeding the crocodiles in the basement. In one of them, (and I’m sorry I don’t remember the exact essay at the moment) he talks about the different kinds of horror, from jump scares and chases (“oh, no, there’s a monster!”) to gross-out body horror (“all their teeth are falling out what is going on?!?”) to terror, which is that sense that something is wrong. (“You’ve just walked into a room that you are familiar with and everything has been moved exactly one inch to the left.”). It’s very, very smart and an incredibly useful way of thinking about horror.
CB: As an author, I send a manuscript and after a time, a very detailed and organized edit letter lands in my inbox outlining all the ways that I can improve a book (which is a nice way of saying: all the ways I can slice it up and pull my hair out until at some point it mends itself back together again, hopefully in better shape.) To be honest, it's easy to focus on how hard my job is after receiving the letter, but I picture yours as an equally difficult one of problem solving and reverse engineering a story that's already been built. Can you describe your editing process?
HW: I generally read all the way through the book once, jotting down (or making notes in track changes) anything that sticks out at me, or any questions I have. Then, when I get to the end, I add any notes I had overall, or impressions that have changed, now that I know where the story was headed. Then, I usually try to step back for a bit (at least overnight) to give myself some time to think about the story, and see if there are any other things that start nagging at me… unanswered questions or places where I’m not quite sure things hang together.
And, as you know, I edit in stages. So the first edit letter will focus on big picture issues… questions on characters, the shape of the story (pacing, plot, emotional arcs), are things happening in the right order to build maximum tension? At this point, I usually find it helpful to have a rough outline of what actually happens in the book, and I use that as the basis for my edit letter.
As I put the edit letter together, I put all my big picture questions at the top, anything that might have larger ripple effects throughout the manuscript (thoughts about characters, etc.). Then I add my outline of the story, and include any notes I have on specific chapters, or scenes or encounters, along with suggestions for potential fixes. It’s important to make sure the shape of the story is right in any book, but when talking about horror, it’s especially important to make sure that each encounter escalates both the tension and the danger (unless you are lulling the characters and readers into a false sense of security, of course, but the timing of that is tricky as well) so that you keep readers nervous and on the edge of their seats. So in that outline section of the first edit letter, there might be a lot of “Can we swap these two scenes, so that the more vicious one happens later on?” or “This makes it REALLY obvious that something is wrong, can we move it later, or pull back a bit?”
Then, once I send the letter off, I ALWAYS like to check in with the author a couple of days later. I want them to have had enough time to look at the notes and process what I was thinking, but I also definitely want to discuss them together before they dive into revisions. Because I know what I was thinking, but I like to make sure that nothing was super confusing for them. Also, sometimes, I might have misread the author’s intentions with a scene, and not really gotten the point they were trying to accomplish, so my suggestions don’t feel right to the author, and when that happens, I want to make sure that we can brainstorm together to find a way to make things clearer for everyone.
Then, the author heads off to write and revise, and eventually, I get another draft and we go through the process again, but usually, the notes in each round will be smaller and more detailed (Line edits take FOREVER on my end!) until we feel like the book is done.
CB: And finally, what is the scariest thing you've ever done?
HW: When I was studying abroad in Europe, I took a weekend trip to Edinburgh on my own, because it was important to me to visit Scotland, and none of my flatmates were able to come with me. And it was an AMAZING trip, I had a fantastic time. HOWEVER, I also discovered that Edinburgh is perhaps the most haunted city in the world, and I decided to sign up for a ghost tour, which started quite near to our hostel… unfortunately, I was the only tourist from that area of town and after a few hours of wandering through the darkness and hearing a series of increasingly creepy stories, the tour ended in a graveyard at midnight on basically the other side of town from my hostel, and I had to walk back, retracing my steps through the most haunted parts of the dark, ghost-infested city on my own, because this was the old part of town where the streets were narrow and there were no cabs around. And I’ve watched WAY too many horror movies for that to feel safe. It was probably the most freaked out I’ve ever been. Needless to say, I spend the rest of my time in Scotland making friends with some of my fellow tourists so I wasn’t just wondering around the haunted city by myself.